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October/November 1999
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
 
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
 
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Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

A RED HEART OF MEMORIES, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Ace Books, October 1999; $TK

Everything has spirit; I don't find that hard to accept. But what if all those spirits were also sentient and you could talk to them? And they could answer? That's how it works for Matilda "Matt" Black, the disarming, matter-of- fact, and whimsically-minded protagonist of Nina Kiriki Hoffman's latest novel.

When the book opens, Matt is drifting through life, living like a street person, albeit one who really can have conversations with inanimate, man-made objects. Then she meets Edmund, a handsome young man who steps out of a wall.

Edmund follows what he calls spirit, fixing things that need to be fixed. In the case of the wall, he had become a part of it for a while in order to let the weakened, crumbling stone grow strong again. Now he says he's willing to help Matt, except it turns out that Edmund's the one who needs help. They're both damaged goods, but Edmund's problems seem more immediate. He has been cut off from his past by some terrible incident in his past that he can't remember.

The pair embark on a journey to meet with the people Edmund knew before that traumatic incident took place. The first old friend turns out to be a ghost and things get only more mysterious and charming from there on out, what with talking cars and houses, not to mention sentient, malleable magic that first appears like liquid gold and then takes on a personality of its own.

Hoffman addresses serious concerns here---abuse, lack of self-worth, the need for companionship---but she never gets preachy. The journey, even through its darkest elements, is leavened by Matt's irrepressible character-that wonderful mix of pure common sense and whimsy that I mentioned earlier.

How it all turns out, you'll have to read for yourself, but it's worth joining this pair for their journey of remembrance and self-discovery. Hoffman has a delightful writing style, a deceptively simple approach to her prose that's both immediately accessible, but no less resonant for that. And while her characters are far more able to forgive than I ever could, that probably says more about me than it does them.

Highly recommended.

THE BALLAD OF BILLY BADASS AND THE ROSE OF TURKESTAN, by William Sanders
Yandro House, January 1999; $25.00/$15.00

Sometimes my own ignorance appalls me. According to the cover copy, this is Sanders's sixteenth book. He's been a finalist for the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Campbell. So it's obvious that he's been working in the sf/f field for some time now, doing work that's well thought of. But until this novel, which only came into my hands by the happenstance of this magazine's editor thinking I might like it, I didn't know his work at all.

Now there are lots of writers in the field that I haven't read (or heard of, for that matter) but this book is just so damned good, I can't understand how I could possibly have overlooked Sanders's work before. It has everything I love about a book:

Great characters, for one thing, from the title characters, Billy Badwater, a Cherokee veteran, and his paramour Janna Turanova, a Kazakhstanian researcher visiting the US on a Visa, to Billy's dead grandfather who talks to him using the shape of various animals, and even images from the TV screen. All the character are well-developed and interesting, and the Natives, happily, are treated like individuals, rather than elevated to icon status, or otherwise stereotyped.

Multiple plots, all of them fascinating. My favorite is the relationship between Billy and Janna, how they meet, fall in love, and try to keep the immigration authorities from shipping her back to Russia. And wrapped up in that is Billy's coming to terms with his place in the world, dealing with poverty, racism, and other ills. But there are also plotlines involving a serious exploration into the dangers of dumped nuclear radiation, parallels shown between how world governments treat their indigenous people, not to mention a really bizarre monster that's going to swallow the world if Billy doesn't do something about it.

Sanders's prose and dialogue is wry, and funny, and serious, and gripping. The book swallows you whole from the first page when Billy's grandfather talks to him through the body of a blue jay and doesn't let you go until the end, with not a wasted page in between. Rather, there's a wealth of intriguing incident and story, character and interaction, high flights of fancy and down to earth horrors.

And the best thing is, if you end up loving this novel as much as I did, there are another fifteen backlist titles for you to go tracking down. If your local bookstore can't get this for you, you can order a copy at 1-888-795-4274, or on the Internet, go to http://members.tripod.com/~wingedfrog/bbrt.html.

FLYBOY ACTION FIGURE COMES WITH GASMASK, by Jim Munroe
HarperFlamingo Canada, 1998; Cdn$20.00

Twenty-two year old Ryan lives in Toronto. He's a student, a virgin, addicted to coffee, fascinated by bugs, and he has a huge crush on Cassandra, the waitress at Sok, a local greasy spoon. Much to his surprise, Cass turns out to be interested in him as well, and they soon exchange secrets: she claims that her daughter Jessica's father was an alien, whereupon Ryan reveals that he can turn into a house fly, and proceeds to prove it.

But Cass has more going for her than a "spaceman impregnated her" story. She used to play in a punk band, but is now a single mother, determined to raise her daughter as best as she is able. Oh, and she can make things disappear. Where they go to, she has no idea, but they're gone forever.

And so is born the dynamic duo of Flyboy and Ms. Place, the Superheroes for Social Justice. Inspired by comic books and the exploits of Sailor Moon, they decide to combat evil, setting their sights on attainable goals as they take on tobacco companies, the local right-wing tabloid newspaper, and other contemporary adversaries.

Now I know the above sounds kind of goofy, especially when you consider Ryan's "superpower": being able to turn into a fly. What kind of an ability is that? What self-respecting hero would admit to it?

But while all those elements are certainly a part of Jim Munroe's novel, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask is much more than a spoof on superheroes and comics. In fact, while the characters are rather self-effacing about the whole business themselves, they do take their battles very seriously. But the real focus of the book, or at least another primary one beyond the superheroics, are the characters, the growth and maturing of their relationship, the wonderful insights Munroe brings to modern culture and the alternative scene of social politics, indie rockers and poets, clubbers and the like.

The cast---not only Ryan and Cass, but their community of friends and hangers-on---is terrific, and their real-life trials are as absorbing as their "battles against the forces of evil." Ryan's first-person point of view perfectly captures a balance of enthusiasm, vulnerability, irony, and bravado. In short, it's the voice of a young man to whom the world is opening up to be both a more wonderful place than he imagined it could be, and one more dangerous and melancholy. And the fact that, without explaining or justifying anything, Munroe manages to make the silly idea of a man turning into a fly to be not only plausible, but something we care about, is all to his credit.

With the wonder of the Internet, readers outside of Canada can readily order copies from http://www.chaptersglobe.com or wait for the forthcoming US edition.

CHOCOLAT, by Joanne Harris
Viking Penguin, 1999; $22.95

Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk arrive at the small French village of Lansquenet in the middle of a February carnival. Having spent her whole life travelling from place to place, first with her mother, now with her own daughter, Vianne wants nothing so much as a place to settle down and live a more ordered life. So she comes to Lansquenet and opens a chocolate shop, a rather mad act, one would think, in a village so small that already boasts a café and bakery.

But Vianne has a gift, the ability to know exactly what chocolate her customer loves best, and an innate perceptiveness that allows her to understand and offer a cure for what troubles a person most. They are small magics, part of many that have filled her life, from her mother's premonitions, charms and other little spells, to her daughter's invisible companions who can sometimes be seen by others.

Initially, the villagers resist this stranger in their midst, but she soon wins many of them over with both her chocolates and her free spirit. But those same drawing points earn her the enmity of others in the village, in particular, the curé of the church that's directly across the square from her shop. Vianne and Father Reynaud both have secret pasts that could be damaging if revealed, to themselves as well as others, and if they keep on their antagonistic course, it could mean disaster for many.

Now some of the characters first appear to fit too much to type, especially the suspicious curé and his "Bible groupies," but on the whole, the reader is won over by the sheer charm of Vianne and her new friends: shy Guillaume, whose only companion is an aging dog; cantankerous Armande and her grandson Luc; Joséphine, whose shoplifting hides a deeper ill; and the river people--dangerous Gypsies, so far as the curé is concerned, but closer in spirit to Vianne than any of the villagers.

Harris's prose is an absolute delight. The novel is set in contemporary France, but she has written it in such a way that it has a timeless quality and could almost be set anywhen. Running under it all is a deep and pleasing sensuality, from descriptions of the locales and the relationships of the characters to the chocolates and the great feast at the end of the book. And while Father Reynaud's presence, and the sections from his point of view, lend somewhat of a menacing tone throughout, Vianne's sections ably counteract that with a great feeling of mystery, warmth, and comfort. For a touchstone, consider Laura Esquival's Like Water for Chocolate, but with a European rather than a Latin flavor.

Highly recommended and worth many rereadings.

EYES OF PREY, by Barry Hoffman
Leisure, September 1999; $5.50

Barry Hoffman can really tell a story. Bringing back characters from Hungry Eyes, he again explores the ramifications of vigilante justice in a way that satisfies both the reader looking for vicarious thrills, and the one who likes to be made to think a little when reading a thriller.

This time the central character is a dancer at a strip club who, after foiling a subway molester, decides to "take back the night." She's doing it for herself, but her stand against crime soon becomes a rallying point for the citizens of Philadelphia. We follow what happens from her viewpoint as well as those of the pursuing police, reporters, and others who become involved. The way their lives intersect, as well as their motivations for being who they are and why they do what they do, makes for fascinating reading.

There are a few fantastic touches as well, some so subtle they aren't revealed until the end, and it's to Hoffman's credit that they fit seamlessly into what would otherwise be a gritty crime novel.

But while the characters are well-developed and fascinating, occasionally the large cast seems a little out of control, just as the prose isn't always as polished as one might hope for. At those points it's Hoffman's enthusiasm for his work, and his heartfelt belief in what he's writing, that carries the reader through. Still once you begin this novel, I'm guessing that, just as it happened with me, you won't be able to put it down until it's done.

SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE STORY INDEX, 1926-1995, by Terry A. Murray
McFarland & Co., 1999; $65.00

This is a definite must for any serious sf/f bibliophile or library. It features a complete listing of all the stories that have appeared in the pulps and news-stand magazines from 1926 through to 1995, from the classics like Weird Tales through to more contemporary titles such as Realms of Fantasy.

The main body of the text is alphabetically divided up by magazine, with the title and author for each story listed by issue. There are also comprehensive indices of story titles and authors in the back. So now if you want to track down that elusive story, or to see what your favorite author has published in the magazines over the years, there's an easy place to turn to.

While it's certainly not for the casual reader, I'm sure it will prove indispensable for scholars and collectors.

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Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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